Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Days before the country is set to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. on what would have been his 83rd birthday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said it was time to correct a mistake in the memorial that honors the slain civil rights leader. Salazar told the Washington Post he has given the National Park Service 30 days to make the appropriate consultations with the interested parties and report to him on a plan to fix a quotation inscribed in granite on the memorial that many have said was so badly excerpted that it lost its entire meaning.
The controversy is over a quote that “turned a modest and mellifluous phrase into a prideful boast,” as the Post says. Rachel Maneuffel first pointed it out in a Post op-ed piece five months ago and since then the calls to have it changed have grown. “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness,” says the quote that is carved on the side of the memorial. As many have said, the mangled quote lost the entire point of the original and made King sound arrogant. In reality, King said: “If you want to say I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace…”
“The ‘if’ and the ‘you’ entirely change the meaning,” wrote Manteuffel. She wasn’t the only one who thought so. Maya Angelou said the quote makes King sound like “an arrogant twit.” For his part, Stephen Colbert said it was “to the point. Not Dr. King’s point, but still. Brevity is the soul of saving money on chiseling fees.” On Friday, Salazar even said that “I do not think it’s an accurate portrayal of what Dr. King was.”
The memorial’s lead architect tells the Post the foundation responsible for the monument has already come up with a proposal for an alternative, but it would still be an excerpt because it’s impossible to carve the whole quote without destroying the memorial. It isn't clear whether the Park Service will have to pay the cost to implement the change or the foundation that built the memorial.
Manteuffel writes of her surprise when she learned officials were moving to fix the mistake. “Things that are etched in stone seldom are changed, especially in Washington, which is not famous for admitting error, righting wrongs, getting things done in a timely fashion, or getting things done at all,” she noted. “It turns out I was right about the error but wrong about Washington.”
The Associated Press points out that it wouldn’t mark the first time a memorial has been changed after opening to the public. Advocates for the disabled campaigned to add a new statue to the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial that depicts the president in a wheelchair.